The Vulnerability of Outrage
Scott Nadelson (RWW Faculty)
The Vulnerability of Outrage
In 1975, the artist Carolee Schneemann walked onto the stage of the Telluride Film Festival, stripped, and painted her body with mud. Then she reached between her legs and began reading from a scroll she slowly unrolled from inside her vagina. On it was the script of a conversation in which a “structuralist filmmaker” tells the artist he won’t watch her films because of “the personal clutter / the persistence of feelings / the hand-touch sensibility / the diaristic indulgence / the painterly mess / the dense gestalt / the primitive techniques.” What he objects to, in other words, are the films’ supposedly feminine qualities.
And Schneemann’s response? If even the suggestion of vaginas makes you uncomfortable, let me show you the real thing.
At the time, Schneemann was largely dismissed—as self-indulgent, narcissistic, sensationalist—even in the avant-garde art world, though she has since been recognized as a major figure, groundbreaking particularly for her explorations of the body as art medium.
On a trip to New York in 2018, I happened upon Schneemann’s career retrospective at MoMA PS1. I’d come across mentions of Interior Scroll before, usually brief ones in articles about more recent feminist art, but reading about it doesn’t quite do justice to looking at documentation photographs, along with the original scroll, wrinkled and stained, pinned up behind protective glass, to say nothing of how intense seeing the actual performance must have been. Here was an artist unafraid, it seemed, to tackle any medium or subject matter, willing to do or say anything she felt compelled to do or say, no matter the reaction. She was boldness and courage personified.
It came as a surprise, then, to discover afterward—still stunned as I browsed in the museum bookstore—that Schneemann had ever experienced, much less expressed, misgivings about the performance. “I didn’t want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public,” she writes in “The Obscure Body/Politic,” a manifesto of sorts, published in Art Journal in 1991. But, she goes on to say, “the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress fueled the image; it was essential to demonstrating this lived action about ‘vulvic space’ against the abstraction of the female body and its loss of meaning.”
I’d rather not, she thought, but you leave me no choice.
In retrospect, it was absurd for me to have imagined Schneemann could have made such a piece without any discomfort. If it didn’t cost her anything, if she didn’t feel incredibly vulnerable in the process, the work wouldn’t have had any power. And no matter how brave or bold, no one could expose herself as she did without some trepidation. But sometimes, Schneemann tells us, the world pisses you off so much that all you can do is squat, reach between your legs, and start unrolling.
Reading Schneemann’s words reminded me of something I’ve observed many times, both in life and in the pages of books: outrage that leads to action also inevitably leads to vulnerability.
“Reading Schneemann’s words reminded me of something I’ve observed many times, both in life and in the pages of books: outrage that leads to action also inevitably leads to vulnerability.”
There’s plenty of outrage to go around these days, and though I personally experience it daily while reading the news, I act on it most often in my professional life, usually when some new policy at my university harms or further exploits our adjunct faculty. The pattern usually goes something like this: our university administration will announce a hasty and ill-conceived decision, often blaming the Board of Trustees; I’ll craft a furious response in my head while smashing up an old concrete pad in my backyard with a sledgehammer; then, before lobbing email grenades to deans, presidents, faculty chairs, I’ll hesitate and think, I wish I didn’t have to do this; then I’ll tell myself I have no choice and hit send; then I’ll immediately feel nauseous and full of doubt as I wait for a response; I’ll pace and sweat and convince myself that even though I now have tenure I’m about to be sacked along with the adjuncts; and afterward I’ll come down with a wretched cold that will leave me in bed for the next two days.
As a writer of fiction, I am interested in moments like these—at least when I reflect on them afterward—less for the action taken as a result of outrage than for the vulnerability it triggers and what that vulnerability might reveal about a character. This is my general approach to writing stories: (1) search for the wound, (2) expose it, (3) jab it with a sharp stick, and (4) examine what comes out with the blood. I’m looking above all else for moments in which characters let their guard down, give us an opening to what they’d rather leave hidden.
So what does my fraught reaction to calling out administrators for misguided decisions reveal about me? A distaste for conflict; a lack of self-confidence even in the midst of moral indignation; a fraud complex; and above all, a deep discomfort with the idea of authority figures holding a grudge against me.
Because of their tendency to leave a character vulnerable, moments of outrage, especially when they prompt not just speech but action, provide writers rich opportunities for psychological exploration. They are inherently dramatic because they externalize conflict, but they also tend to be full of interesting subtext.
Take, for example, a catalyzing moment in Edward P. Jones’s story “Marie,” in which the titular character, waiting for hours in a Washington, D.C., Social Security office and dismissed by the receptionist who is supposed to help her, finally lashes out. Baffled and ignored by a bureaucracy she doesn’t understand, eighty-six-year-old Marie has sat listening to the receptionist, Vernelle Wise, gossip with an office mate while her 9 a.m. appointment slides toward 2 p.m. Finally, she approaches Vernelle’s desk and tells her calmly how long she’s been waiting. The lack of inflection suggests that any outrage Marie feels in the moment she’s keeping suppressed, still trying to remain polite. But when Vernelle replies condescendingly, “pointing her fingernail file at Marie,” and even worse, the “other receptionist began to giggle,” the old woman’s anger explodes into view: “Marie reached across the desk and slapped Vernelle Wise with all her might.”
In the immediate aftermath of her action, we might believe outrage has given Marie new strength in the face of an impersonal system fronted by authoritarian lackeys. Vernelle, who has treated her with nothing but contempt, lording over her in her role as gatekeeper, drops her nail file, the tool she used to express her scorn, “which made a cheap tinny sound when it hit the plastic board her chair was on.” With the slap, her power is revealed to be “cheap” and “tinny,” her authority flimsy. But as soon as it is stripped from her, she plays the victim, and Marie’s brief surge of power, in turn, evaporates. Crying, Vernelle “looked at Marie as if, in the moment of her greatest need, Marie had denied her.” When the other receptionist calls security, all Marie can do is return to her seat and gaze “at the two women almost sympathetically, as if a stranger had come in, hit Vernelle Wise, and fled.” Any satisfaction her action might have brought her is gone almost the moment it concludes.
“Any satisfaction her action might have brought her is gone almost the moment it concludes.”
What persists then for Marie is far more complicated and interesting. She’s rattled by what she’s done, unnerved by it. Though she’s struggling to get by on Social Security and has no cash to spare, when she leaves the office she “was too flustered to wait for the bus and so took a cab home. With both chains, she locked herself in the apartment, refusing to answer the door or the telephone the rest of the day and most of the next.” In the wake of her outrage, she runs from the city that threatens and confounds her and retreats to the safety of isolation. But even then, she remains exposed to guilt and remorse: “For days and days after the incident she ate very little, asked God to forgive her. She was haunted by the way Vernelle’s cheek had felt, by what it was like to invade and actually touch the flesh of another person.”
The slap serves as an opening for Jones to probe Marie’s psyche, and where it takes him is both unexpected and crucial to the direction of the story. The encounter with Vernelle continues to trouble Marie until “finally, one morning nearly two weeks after she slapped the woman, she woke with a phrase she had not used or heard since her children were small: You whatn’t raised that way.” The slap returns her to an earlier moral standard, and she recognizes she has crossed a line that mattered deeply to her younger self, a line now blurred or buried by age and the changes it has wrought. And just when she’s reconnected to a lost sense of who she once was, who she wanted to be, a Howard University student appears at her door asking to interview her for an oral history project. Before the slap, she wouldn’t have considered such a request, but now she’s open to her memories, recognizes a value in reliving them, sharing them with others. And what she describes for the student is a time when she was enamored of the city, when she saw it as a place of magic rather than menace: “You ain’t lived till you been on a streetcar,” she says on the student’s recording. “The more I rode, the more brighter things got . . . I knowed I could never live in a place that didn’t have that streetcar and them clackety-clack tracks.”
This is the most surprising effect of Marie’s outrage: in making her vulnerable, the slap returns her to a state of wonder she’d long forgotten. She may have no more power than before over oppressive forces that circumscribe her life, but now that she is armed with a renewed sense of self and openness to the world around her, those forces have less sway over her, less power to confuse and terrify her. At the story’s end, she stashes the recordings of her memories in a place of honor, “the dresser drawer that contained all that was valuable to her—birth and death certificates, silver dollars, life insurance policies, pictures of her husbands and the children they had given each other, and the grandchildren those children had given her and the great-grands whose names she had trouble remembering.” By recording her past, Marie has given back to herself the life of joy and enchantment she’d unconsciously relinquished, and now age alone can no longer take it away.
Scott Nadelson is the author of a novel, a memoir, and six collections of short fiction, most recently While It Lasts, recipient of the Donald L. Jordan Prize for Literary Excellence. His work has won an Oregon Book Award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize and has been published in venues such as Ploughshares, New England Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Best American Short Stories. He teaches at Willamette University, where he holds the Hallie Brown Ford Chair in Writing, and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.